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Help your kids avoid making your mistakes

Stop making those mistakes yourself

Photo by vivek kumar on Unsplash

Our kids do what we do more than what we say. Their genetically programmed survival mechanism pushes them to model the actual behavior our feelings drive us to rather than the theoretical behavior we want them to follow.

Sometimes these feelings have driven us to make decisions that we regret and that we don’t want our children to repeat. But if we haven’t spent time working on how we react to our feelings we are likely still making bad decisions. And that actual pattern of behavior is what our children will emulate.

Regrets, I’ve had a few

As adults we sometimes think about what could have been. How much differently we would do certain things or make different decisions with the experience we have now. Opportunities we regret not pursuing because of what seemed like “good reasons” at the time or simply because we didn’t have the balls.

Now we are parents. Most likely parents who want our kids to be successful and happy. And we see our patterns of behavior in our kids.

Even if we recognize our kids as separate individuals and are not trying to live vicariously through their lives, we are compelled to advise them on what to do and not do. We want them to avoid the pitfalls that we think tripped us up. We want to be the shoulders of giants they will stand upon in order to achieve big things.

“Take that risk”, we say, thinking of all the opportunities we missed.

“Don’t listen to that person”, thinking of that heartache or hassle we could have avoided had we cut certain people out of our lives.

But despite our best efforts, we see our kids making mistakes that seemingly could have been easily avoided. Mistakes that are all the more frustrating because we recognize them and tried to warn our kids away.

The 4th trimester

The reason that our words have no effect is not because our kids are ignoring us or because they are being willfully disobedient.

It is because the patterns of behavior that tripped us up in the past are likely still present unless we have specifically worked to eliminate or mitigate those habits in ourselves. And our kids are driven to follow our lead.

This is not a pathological situation, this is parent child dynamics working exactly as it is meant to.

The thing to realize is that one of the killer apps for humanity isn’t necessarily our intelligence per se. It is our flexibility, the adaptability to which our intelligence is merely a tool. The ability to deal with unfamiliar situations or plan for things that are not immediately happening.

So how does that apply to our children?

I’ve heard it said that due to the size of our brains, there is actually a fourth trimester of gestation: the 3 months directly after birth when physical development of our brains and bodies is in overdrive. It is a time of almost total helplessness that is unique to humans.

But that helplessness lies at the root of our adaptability.

To see how, imagine any newborn creature in a harsh environment. It’s top priority is to survive but what’s unique about a newborn human is we have very few pre-built survival mechanisms.

We are not antelope that can start running within a few minutes of being born. We are not birds that can fly after a few months. We are not lions that start hunting for food within a year or two.

Those animals are not adaptable and don’t need to be because they are designed for a specific environment. Take them out of that environment and they cannot survive.

In contrast, human babies are blank slates because we can’t predict the environment we are going to be born into with as much certainty as other animals. Genetics cannot prepare us for every possible variation ahead of time.

So what is this infant to do? When they first come into the world, how do they figure out how to best survive?

You’re a survivor

The answer is that they look to the survivors. They look to the adults around them since, by definition, those adults have worked out how to survive childhood in this environment.

Children unconditionally and unconsciously accept everything they see an adult do as the way to survive because they can’t risk experimenting with a different approach until they have gained more experience.

They literally don’t know any better.

This means that it doesn’t really matter what we say to our kids because they are genetically driven to emulate what we do. It’s an unavoidable fundamental survival mechanism.

The way we interact with the world, how we approach things, even what we do for a living. Our kids’ brains are programmed by the actions of the adults around them, no more so than from their parents when they are very young.

However they don’t just emulate outward adult behaviors. This is because these behaviors arise from our feelings more than our conscious rational minds.

Justifications not conclusions

We may claim to make conclusions based on facts but facts don’t drive us. Instead we normally feel something and then look for the facts that can logically explain that feeling. We justify decisions much more often than we make conclusions.

Getting back to our infant’s driver for copying adults, it’s need to survive, the primary adult motivator that they are primed to copy is what to fear. After all, our fear mechanism evolved to ensure our survivability. A dead caveman can’t procreate or help their tribe. So a baby caveman needs to pick up on what to fear ASAP if they want to survive to adulthood.

The fact that we no longer really need to fear for our physical demise is irrelevant. We are still designed as if that was true, especially when it comes to interpersonal and social dynamics since keeping aligned with the tribe was key to an individual human’s survival.

All this means that how much we fear things and how much that fear dominates our decision is unconsciously emulated by our kids.

Whether we we act out of anxiety or whether we keep moving despite our anxiety, either way that will likely define how our kids react to adversity. The details of what they fear are less important than how they react to it.

So any parental fear that your kids pick up on is going to imprint on their behavior more strongly than anything else, especially when they are young.

Your worries about your looks, about what other people think, about money, all come from core survival drivers such as fear, shame, desire etc and the default is that your kids will imprint on these same feeling responses.

It’s the way our species is designed to survive and it is impossible to change that with just words.

So our kids are screwed?

But as adults, the feelings that arise under particular circumstances are pretty set. If you’re afraid of spiders or public speaking there is very little you can do to not be afraid.

So does that mean that our kids are doomed to repeat the mistakes that our feelings drive us to?

Not at all. While our feelings are not under our control our reaction to them is. And since our children cannot see inside our heads they are tuned to pick up on our feelings based on our actions.

In particular we have a store of conscious constructive feelings that we can use to avoid being driven by our unconscious reactive feelings. Or to put it more succinctly, fear is overcome by courage. Courage is not feeling no fear, it is feeling fear and then acting anyway.

So if we have made mistakes because our feelings have driven us to poor decision making, the first thing we can do is recognize that.

Once we are able to realize to what extent we are being driven by fear vs making sober, rational decisions, we can recognize when we need to be courageous vs when we can follow our impulse.

If we want our kids to not make the same mistakes that our feelings have driven us to we make, we need to stop making those mistakes. We need to stop acting from fear and instead act despite fear.

If your kid sees you being brave when you’re afraid instead of giving into that fear then they will build the behavior that the proper reaction to the inevitable fear they feel is courage, is action.

If we think we didn’t follow our dreams or take enough risks in our life and we don’t want our kids to do the same thing, then we need to start taking more risks.

If we have avoided certain things because we are worried about what other people will think, then we must do those things and just live with that discomfort.

If we want our kids to follow their passions despite their fears then we must show them how to charge at the tiger instead of running away from that rustle in the bush.

Only by being brave ourselves can our kids learn to be brave.